×

The West

Like its subject, "The West" is about as big and unwieldy as all outdoors. It sweeps its way from the 16th century conquistadors to the early 1900s with the speed of a wagon train trying to climb the Rockies.

With:
Narrator: Peter Coyote.

Like its subject, “The West” is about as big and unwieldy as all outdoors. It sweeps its way from the 16th century conquistadors to the early 1900s with the speed of a wagon train trying to climb the Rockies.

Ken Burns presents a film by Stephen Ives, a co-production of Insignia Films and WETA-TV/Washington in association with Florentine Films and Time-Life Video & Television. Executive producer, Ken Burns; producers, Stephen Ives, Jody Abramson, Michael Kantor; director, Ives; writers, Geoffrey C. Ward, Dayton Duncan; cinematographer, Buddy Squires, Allen Moore; supervising You can say this about Ken Burns: America’s most praised documentarian certainly isn’t timid. He’s attracted by epic subjects and epic themes, and then , like Homer, bends his formulas to tell epic stories. With “The West,” the Burns formula has finally taken over overtaken, actually the storytelling.

Burns cast such large shadows with “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” his two celluloid monuments, that he’s now precariously close to approaching monument status himself. Thus “The West” raises an enigma: When is a Ken Burns film a Ken Burns film? And its corollary: Can the work stand alone?

Though Burns appears to have signed onto this project as an eminence gris it was produced and directed by Stephen Ives, who has a fine documentary on Charles A. Lindberghto his credit, and receives possessory credit above the title here every frame of “The West” bears Burns’ unmistakable fingerprints. There are the themes of prejudice and persecution; the mixture of history and biography; the extensive use of primary-source materials such as diaries and letters offered through celebrity voiceovers; the expert interpreters filmed in medium to tight close-up; the measured narration; the textured archival photos; black-and-white title cards; and, of course, the doleful fiddle and piano music that swims constantly underneath. It is all so familiar and familiarity has a knack for breeding complacency in a creator, no matter whose name tops the creation.

Still, this is far from an unworthy enterprise, even if its length and leadenness may prove difficult to stick with all the way. The subject is great, and another attempt by the Burnsian stable co-writer Geoffrey C. Ward worked on “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” as did others involved here to explore and explain what America is and who we are as a people, where we are grand, where we stray, what was real, what was myth, and what myths do we need to hold onto, and which do we need to explode. Grand stuff, to be sure.

But it’s the very grandeur of the exploration that leads “The West” into the thicket from which it never quite emerges. Both “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” which had the added advantage of a treasure trove of historical film footage, had the unity of their subjects working for them. Intent on being comprehensive, “The West” only tantalizes in the areas it doesn’t exhaust.

Among the corners that it does choose to explore in detail, much of the navigating is affecting and, often, heartbreakingly passionate. The sad stories of the proud Indian leaders Sitting Bull and Chief Joseph are tragically lyrical; their own words in the telling are unforgettably beautiful. Indeed, the stories of America’s willful steamrolling of anything and anyone Indians, Mexicans, Mormons that stood between its perceived manifest destiny in the ineffable march to the sea are presented movingly, again and again and again.

The stories of the gold rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad are carefully and complexly woven, full of expansive spirit and horrible inhumanity. The stories of Texas and California statehood are filled with interesting detail and anecdotes. Finally, the story of a Wyoming sheep farmer and his family that threads through the final two hours is lovingly crafted; it puts a human face to the enterprise.

Ironically, with hundreds of photos of faces, it’s the human face that “The West” lacks. Whole lives were skillfully painted in “The Civil War,” and yet too many are just given outlines here. And while many familiar faces George Custer, Buffalo Bill, Sam Houston are held up to history’s mirror, many equally familiar ones Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Wyatt Earp aren’t reflected on at all.

Indian novelist and poet N. Scott Momaday is the one face, and voice, that haunts the entire film. He is a wonderful character, with wonderful stories and insights: the West, he tells us, is a landscape that had to be believed to be seen. “The West” also puts to good use former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and Texas Gov. Ann Richards – her chicken story is priceless.

The well of historians from which “The West” draws, however, is problematic. It’s not the historians themselves, but the identifications. What is their expertise? Why were these particular experts chosen? Many of the Native American witnesses are just identified by tribe; are they leaders, historians, what?

In the end, despite the wealth of information, the magnificent photography of nature, the faces that manage to emerge, and the themes that are mined, “The West” never manages to cross the canyon into anything that feels new and different.

What it does feel is stiflingly worthy; every moment whispers that this is important television to be held on a pedestal with “The Civil War” and “Baseball” as a monument to the genre as a whole and Burns’ immense contribution to it. Perhaps, like Peter Pan, Ken Burns might benefit by losing his shadow for awhile.

The West

Production: PBS, SUN. SEPT. 25-THUR. SEPT. 19 SUN. SEPT 22-THUES. SEPT. 24, 8 P.M.

Crew: Editor, Paul Barnes; editors, Richard Hankin, Michael Levine, Adam Zucker; music, Matthias Gohl. 12 HOURS

With: Narrator: Peter Coyote.

More Film

  • Knuckle City

    Jahmil X.T. Qubeka on Durban Opening-Night Film ‘Knuckle City’

    DURBAN–Dudu Nyakama is an aging boxer whose best fighting days are behind him. But for a man whose only glory has come in the ring, a big prize fight offers the one shot at saving his family, dragging him into the criminal underbelly of the gritty township he’s spent his whole life trying to escape. [...]

  • Venice Opener

    Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 'The Truth' to Open Venice Film Festival

    Palme d’Or-winning director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s hotly anticipated new film, “The Truth,” starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke, will open the 76th edition of the Venice Film Festival. “The Truth,” which marks the director’s first work set outside his native Japan, will screen on Aug. 28 in competition. Kore-eda won the Palme d’Or at [...]

  • it chapter two, comic con

    Comic-Con: 4500 Gallons of Fake Blood and Everything Else to Know About 'It Chapter Two''

    Comic-Con 2019 kicked off with a stacked presentation from the director and cast of “It Chapter Two” on Wednesday, inspiring a curious amount of joy at San Diego’s Spreckles Theater in spite of the abject terror offered up by the film. The closing chapter to 2017’s record-obliterating “It,” the highest grossing R-rated horror film of [...]

  • 'Between Me and My Mind' Review:

    Film Review: Trey Anastasio in 'Between Me and My Mind'

    Trey Anastasio doesn’t look like a rock star. With his thick rimless glasses and flop of sandy red hair, you might say he resembles John Sebastian, but really, he looks like a mashup of Mike White and Jon Cryer and the filmmaker Chris Smith. He’s an appealingly ordinary shaggy-geek dude, like some guy you might [...]

  • Photo taken July 18, 2019, from

    More Than 20 Feared Dead in Arson Attack on Japan's Kyoto Animation

    UPDATED: More than 20 people are feared to have died Thursday in an arson attack on the Kyoto Animation company in Japan, shocking a nation in which extreme violence is very rare. Emergency services in Kyoto City received a call about 10:35 a.m. local time Thursday reporting an explosion on the first floor of the [...]

  • sith trooper

    Sith Trooper Revealed From 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker'

    “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” revealed a new storm trooper uniform Wednesday at San Diego Comic Con as part of a special exhibit celebrating the evolution of the storm trooper design. Dubbed the Sith trooper, the new uniform sports all-red armor plates with a matching red and black blaster. Also decorating the armor is [...]

  • Dunkirk

    Harry Styles Is the Perfect Prince Eric; Why He'd Rock 'Little Mermaid' Role

    Could Harry Styles be the perfect Prince Eric? One day after the announcement that the One Direction star is “in early negotiations to play the iconic ‘Little Mermaid’ role,” the internet exploded with speculation as to how he would portray the object of Ariel’s affections. “I can see lots of reasons why Harry is perfect,” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content